Charitable giving: the United States hasn't lost its touch

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If I had a hammer (as the old song goes), and wanted to make good use of it in an election year, I'd shatter some myths about the American character. I'd start with one that goes like this: Americans are drifting into apathy and losing their benevolent impulses. Heedless of homelessness, poverty, and poor education, they turn away from the needs of their fellows. Government welfare is the only answer. So, sad as it is, taxes must be raised.

Ask for proof, and someone may try to convince you that Americans, facing economic squeezes, are giving away less money to charitable causes; that as two-worker families become the norm, Americans have less volunteer time to give; and that US corporations, pressured by bottom-line considerations, are distributing fewer dollars to worthy causes.

Logical? Sounds like it. Trouble is, those three assertions are entirely false. But so subtle is the falsity that it needs to be met squarely. Here are the numbers:

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Some 90 percent of Americans give to causes of their choice, in amounts that average about $700 per household. That added up to $66 billion in 1985 (the latest figures available), an increase of almost 9 percent from 1984.

They also volunteer in droves: 48 percent of adults, and 52 percent of teen-agers, gave freely of their time to worthy causes in 1985. That year, too, adult volunteers gave an average of 3.5 hours a week - up from 2.6 hours in 1981.

Corporate giving has increased by 257 percent over the past 10 years - well ahead of the overall 179 percent increase in giving from all sources. In fact, corporate giving has risen three times as fast as corporate pretax profits.

These figures are from a recent report by Independent Sector, a Washington-based coalition of 650 corporate, foundation, and voluntary organizations. Called ``Daring Goals for a Caring Society,'' the report makes no apologies for the ax it grinds. By 1991, it wants to see charitable giving doubled and volunteer activity increased 50 percent.

Those seem reasonable goals, especially when you consider the number of Americans already categorized as so-called ``fivers'' - the 20 million who give away at least 5 percent of their income, and the 23 million who volunteer five or more hours a week. They're reasonable, too, because charitable giving and volunteering are ingrained in the American character. International comparisons are hard to come by - although the British-based Interphil, the International Standing Conference on Philanthropy, may soon be gathering comparable figures from Europe. But on one thing most observers agree: The United States takes the lead in charitable giving. What's more, increasing numbers of nations, including China and some in the East bloc, are contacting American organizations to learn how to promote philanthropy in their own countries.

Why? Because welfare-state nations, reaching the saturation point in taxation, still have plenty of unmet needs. Groping for solutions, they're coming face to face with three great truths about human nature: that people basically like to give, especially when they can see the results in programs they care about; that they dislike being forced to give, particularly when their taxes build larger and larger bureaucracies; and that volunteer time (estimated to have been worth $100 billion in America in 1985) can often accomplish for free what you can't buy from a bureaucracy at any price.

Those simple truths are, in many ways, what makes America tick. The American character was founded on the Christian practice of tithing, or giving away one-tenth of one's income. These days, most Americans still give up a tenth of their incomes - not to the church, but to the taxman. Does that mean all the nation's social needs are met? No. Then does that mean taxes need raising? No again. The needs can be met in other, better ways. Deep in the American grain is the habit of giving. We can either tap that lode - spreading the practice of ``fiving,'' as Independent Sector is urging - or watch our taxes rise.

If I had a hammer, I know which I'd thump for.

A Monday column

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